I’m walking down a side street in a small Georgia town looking for interesting architectural details on the old buildings. It’s a little before 11 A.M. on a Thursday and the temperature and humidity are both close to 95. Though I’m dressed comfortably in shorts and a polo shirt, the heat has me looking for a shady spot. Just ahead of me, standing by himself, in the shade between two buildings, is a black man in a white suit, white shirt, white tie, and matching shoes. At that moment, I know I want a picture of him. What I don’t know is this encounter is going to be more than I bargained for.
There are at least two different perspectives photographing people on the street and at events. One is to take the photo discreetly without the subject knowing, if possible. The other is to approach the subject and ask for their permission. I’ll not present the merits/demerits of each style, but just say that I’m in the “ask for permission” camp. Though I’m fairly outgoing, it’s pretty rare for me to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation. Having a couple of cameras around my neck seems to make me more gregarious and less threatening to others at the same time.
As I get to where the man is standing, I compliment him on his suit and introduce myself. He tells me his name is Marcus and asks, “What are you taking pictures of?” “Buildings, architectural details, and people, I say. Would it be OK if I took your photo?” Without pausing Marcus says, “Sure.” As I get into position for the shot, I ask him if he would remove his sunglasses. “My eyes are pretty red. I’ve been crying a lot. My girlfriend’s funeral is in about an hour,” he says as his voice trails off.
I move the camera away from my eye, walk over to him, and offer my condolences. Though I cannot put myself in Marcus’ shoes, I let him know I have walked on the same trail, having lost my wife in late 2013. This seems to put him more at ease as he starts to open up. Marcus is hurting, angry, and feeling that he contributed to her death. Marcus tells me that he and his girlfriend, Jolene, had been living together and he got into some trouble, which resulted in jail time. Jolene had a drinking problem and was unemployed, so with no money coming in, they were evicted from their apartment. She went back home to live with her parents while Marcus was incarcerated, became ill, and was hospitalized. He tells me that Jolene was treated poorly in the hospital due to her alcohol issues. “She deserved better than she got. It wasn’t right. I don’t think this would have happened if I’d not been in jail. I feel like I caused this,” he said.
Neither of us speaks for a while, then Marcus says, “You can take that picture now.” I step back a few feet, squeeze off a few frames, and show him the results on the camera’s LCD. He nods his approval and says, “Would you do me a favor and take a picture of me beside Jolene’s casket?” “I’d be honored to, Marcus. My only concern is that I’m not exactly dressed for a funeral,” I reply. “It’s O.K. If anyone says anything, I’ll tell them you’re with me,” he says matter-of-factly.
We make our way down the street to the small storefront church where the service is to be held. Marcus leads the way and I follow him through the front door, past some early arrivals, and into the sanctuary filled with folding chairs. I’m sure the two of us are quite a picture. He in that all white outfit and me dressed like I was going to a barbecue. Yet, we do not create a ripple in the calmness of the church. Jolene’s white casket is in front of the altar, a lamp clipped to the open lid. I position Marcus toward the open end of the casket and compose a shot that I think he will like. Once again, I show him the shot on the back of the camera and he nods his approval. He touches my elbow, looks me in the eye and says, “Would you please take one more. I want to kiss her goodbye.” This time it’s me who nods affirmatively and I get in position as Marcus moves back to the casket. He looks back at me to ensure I’m ready and tenderly kisses Jolene on the forehead. I’m praying that these will be good memories for Marcus as I depress the shutter.
He walks to where I am, we quickly check the images, make our way to the back of the church, and slip out the door onto the sidewalk. I get Marcus’ address so I can send him some prints. He thanks me for taking the photos and I let him know that I felt blessed to be able to help him in this time of need. We smile and shake hands. He stops to speak with a friend before going back inside the church and I continue down the street to find a place for lunch.
From the time I introduced myself to Marcus to the time we parted couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes, but it is something I will always remember. I firmly believe we are at our best when we are helping others. We just have to be ready to act when the situation presents itself. I have to continually overcome the voice that tells me, “Don’t get involved. Keep going. You don’t know that person.” I don’t know what impact our interaction had on Marcus, but I know the good it did for me.
Note: The names of Marcus and Jolene have been changed to conceal their identities.